City administrator strikes secret deal with alderman to avoid move to cancel surveillance contract

Bettendorf's city administrator struck a secret deal with an alderman to convince him not to seek reconsideration of contract with an Israeli online surveillance firm.

In emails obtained by through a Freedom of Information request, Second Ward Alderman Scott Naumann told City Administrator Decker Ploehn Monday, Dec. 16 he planned to ask the council rescind the $18,000 contract with ZenCity at the council's Dec. 17 meeting. The council had approved the agreement Dec. 4 with no discussion.

After being notified of Naumann's intent, Ploehn emailed ZenCity officials at 9:43 p.m. that same day.

"I run (sic) into a situation here where one of my city council members is now questioning how to deauthorize the purchase of software (ZenCity's artificial intelligence software). He is now of the belief that as part of our entire communication engagement strategy this purchase needs to be re-evaluated and wants to place this on the council agenda for tomorrow evening (12/17), for the council to discuss cancellation of the purchase," the email from Ploehn to ZenCity stated.

"I spent considerable time with him (Naumann) today and I believe if you would be agreeable, I may be able to convince him to pay 1/3 of the purchase and in essence pilot in for 120 days so that we could show him the value of the product relative to the alternative of canceling it," the email stated. "I am sorry but this has taken me by surprise as well."

"Obviously the problem here is time as he wants to discuss this at tomorrow night's agenda so if possible when you get this in your early morning if you could visit and then perhaps we could set up an early morning call 7 a.m. my time on my cell phone to discuss options?" the city administrator wrote to ZenCity's Customer Success Manager David Denker.

The ZenCity manager then set up an online meeting between Ploehn, city attorney Chris Curran and "multiple senior team members" of ZenCity.

After that meeting, Ploehn talked with Naumann and later sent ZenCity's Denker a brief email stating: "I spoke to Alderman Scott Naumann and he is satisfied with this outcome and will not pursue placing this on the agenda for discussion."

Numerous calls to Naumann for comment on his concerns about ZenCity's surveillance contract and his conversations with city officials were not returned.

Attorney Curran said the contract revisions with ZenCity do not require council action and the contract will be reviewed by the council after six months.

The Israeli-based company uses artificial intelligence software to monitor citizen interactions on Internet platforms including Facebook, Twitter and local news sites.

According to information provided council members, the firm would monitor "social media, news outlets and other sources, tracking trends on topics that are being circulated on various media platforms. . ."

The information would enable the city's communication staff to monitor information involving the city "to be able to understand the trend and begin to allow the city to engage in those conversations as appropriate."

The ZenCity contract says it uses artificial intelligence to provide a "map interface" to show "all interactions which have a location property, divided by category, by type or in a heat map format."

The contract states up to 50 users within the city could access the information/reports generated by ZenCity, but the city does not specify which city officials would have access to the information.

ZenCity's privacy statement says it does not collect private Facebook group data and "filters out" individual names or identities. It also states it does not share information without the expressed permission of the city.

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